This past week, in honour of Phylis’ Story, my grade 9 students took a week-long inquiry into residential schooling and what the term reconciliation means. Beginning with the following question, Should people be held accountable for past actions? Why?, we investigated what residential school was and the impact this legal mandate has made on Canadian history, culture and heritage.
A Brief History
For over 100 years many native children were taken away from their families and forced to stay at residential schools. Over 150,000 students attended these schools, the majority of which were run by churches. Some children attended these schools for a short time while others attended for their childhood (until 16 years of age).
In 2008, Stephen Harper, on behalf of the Canadian government, apologized for the suffering and abuse many experienced.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was created, in the hopes of promoting healing of those affected. With a five-year mandate to uncover and share with all Canadians information about what happened to aboriginal children in Canada’s residential schools, its mandate was to collect a historical record and to promote the understanding of this historical record for future generations. One of the main ways of creating this record was through official documentation of survivor stories. The commission hosted seven national events and dozens of smaller community forums in an effort to hear the truth.
Our Journey at MidSun School
Our journey into understanding residential schooling and reconciliation began with students on Monday being introduced to Phylis’ Story, a story every child can relate to – the excitement of going to school in your new school clothing.
Students were than asked what they knew, if anything of rsidential schooling. Not surprising, only a few students had even heard of these schools, with the only student having information to share in two classes was a first nations teenager.
After introducing what residential schooling was and briefly talking about what residential school was and introducing the work of the TRC, I posed the following questions to my two classes:
The discussion that ensued highlighted the importance of educating students on residential schooling as mostly, responses focused on question 1 and students feeling frustrated that they are being made to apologize for things they did not do. While classes agreed that victims should be helped by those who wronged them, students felt this what not them. Facilitating this conversation was truly moving for me as well, as I worked with my students to understand that while “us” as “individuals” may not have been the people who participated in this racism and abuse, “us” as a “collective Canadian society” are, and “we” are responsible for ensuring the legacy and side effects these school have left on society are remembered and never repeated – this is what reconciliation is.
My students began to understand.
Our journey continued by informing students of the truth and impact of residential schooling through videos supplied by CBC News in Review. Then, on Tuesday, all MidSun students welcomed Elder Gus Mini Bears to speak of his experiences of board school and to share his aboriginal heritage. With 700 students in attendance, we could begin to see that our message of reconciliation was beginning to resonate with our community. Thank-you to the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary for arranging such a meaningful conversation.
As our week continued, students engaged in poetry analysis, class discussions and media clips to deepen our understanding. The poem we unpacked is below:
We even looked at a quote from our very first Prime Minister:
Finally, we finished our scaffolding by looking at positions that challenged whether or not residential schools were all bad. We did this by reading an article published in the National Post and listening to a radio clip conversation on the topic. We then engaged in small group discussions of the validity of the two arguments.
The radio clip can be found here: In Defense of Residential Schools
Our week closed on Friday, with all students participating in Orange Shirt Day. A First Nations staff member helped us champion this day by suggesting students tie ribbon on their clothing and in their hair, a tradition in First Nation culture. We chose orange ribbon for the day.
Then, students engaged in reflection through a final blog post, ultimately circling back to the questions and topics posed at the beginning of the week.
While responses are still being generated, I have recorded sections of student reflections below:
“This week we learned what it is to reconcile with the first nations, many people may not feel like it was their fault and that it happened before they where even born. Truth is it doesn’t matter who it was. We need to hear their stories and help them recover from the abuse they suffered in residential schools, that’s what reconciling is. take a step into their shoes. They where taken from their families for 10 months of the year and where physically and sexually abused, we cant just “move on from this” we need to make sure nothing like this happens again” – Sam
“Through the conversations we’ve had this week on residential schooling, I have learned about how your childhood can affect you for the rest of your life and sometimes future generations. I also learned about how young children were when they had to go these schools. I have a younger sister and I remember how she was when she was five and I can’t imagine her going through that.” – Alyssa
“I’ve learned that many stereotypes about Aboriginal people are very biased and uninformed. There are always sides of the story that are unheard, so we shouldn’t make assumptions based on others’ opinions.” – Max
“It has been made clear to me that residential schools are not that far buried into history and are still very much a topic today that still requires reconciliation and thought.” – Kelly
I am thankful that the work we did with our students at MidSun this year was effective and educational for our students. Do I think this is enough? No. This is an ongoing conversation and education for our students, community and society.